(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The United Nations Security Council was set to vote last night on a resolution demanding Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territories, including east Jerusalem.” Rumors flew thick and fast that President Barack Obama would take a parting shot at Israel’s settlement policy and at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he has had an acrimonious relationship during his two terms in office that end January 20.
Netanyahu was clearly concerned. He called a meeting of the security cabinet, canceled an appearance at the National Cyber Defense Authority in Beersheba, and took to twitter to state that the US “should veto the anti-Israel resolution.”
As Netanyahu convened his cabinet, news broke that France is convening a Middle East peace conference on January 15, to which it will invite some 70 countries to “reaffirm the necessity of a two-state solution.” Israel most likely will not attend.
Jerusalem has made its position very clear and in November rejected a French invitation, saying that “agreement will come only through direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”
The timing of the French invitation was hardly a coincidence. The conference will take place five days before the transition of power in the US and president-elect Donald Trump would hardly be likely to attend were it to be held a week later.
He, too, made his position clear ahead of the UN vote: “The resolution being considered at the United Nations Security Council regarding Israel should be vetoed,” Trump tweeted and posted on Facebook, adding that “peace between the Israelis and Palestinians will only come through direct negotiations between the parties, and not through the imposition of terms by the United Nations” and “this puts Israel in a very poor negotiating position and is extremely unfair to all Israelis.”
But then a twist in the tale – Egypt pulled the motion. Israeli sources claimed credit, saying President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had “caved to Israeli pressure.” But more likely what caused him to drop his concern about the Palestinians was fear of angering the president-elect. What now will happen to France’s initiative? Is it part of an Obamaled coordinated push to set a framework and perhaps even a timetable for a two-state solution – a move that over the past year has been widely predicted could take place during the presidential interregnum.
All of that is unclear, but one thing is for sure, Middle East diplomacy is about to be turned on its head when the Trump administration takes over.
The Security Council vote would have had little immediate effect, but would have emboldened the Palestinians to pursue Israel in international forums, while the French initiative also will not bring peace an inch closer. As Trump takes office, the international community should take stock of its thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and consider whether, more than two decades since Oslo, constantly repeating the same tired formula will achieve the desired result.
Former defense minister Moshe ‘Bogie’ Yaalon, who was ousted earlier this year in favor of Avigdor Liberman, offered some interesting insights in a recently published piece in the journal Foreign Affairs.
“The model of change embodied in the Oslo Accords failed, and if tried again, it will fail again. Only a fundamentally different approach to change – call it bottom-up rather than top-down – can end the underlying conflict,” he writes.
Ya’alon, who initially supported Oslo and the land-for-peace formula, says – as does Netanyahu – that the reason for the failure of negotiations is Palestinian reluctance to accept Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people within any boundaries and that until that reluctance dissipates peace will not be possible.
In the interim, until the Palestinians reach such a recognition, says Ya’alon, Israel and the international community should adopt a policy that encourages bottom- up incremental change.
The major component of that approach is economic growth and development, replicating for example the success of the Palestinian city of Rawabi near Ramallah in other parts of the West Bank and creating Palestinian industrial zones.
Israel and the international community should also help improve Palestinian governance and support anti-corruption and institution building efforts, Ya’alon says. He also calls for a diplomatic component that would have Arab states involved regardless of whether they have formal relations with Israel or not.
On another note, Ya’alon adds that Israel should continue to limit settlement activity along the lines of the April 2004 agreement between Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush that tacitly recognizes the settlement blocs.
He further recognizes that calls for a largescale annexation of the West Bank or parts of it, which have proliferated following Trump’s election, would be a grave error.
The international community would be well advised to adopt the same kind of clear-eyed realism.